Best Training Principal - Suzanne Todd
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When a firm boasts over 40% of the wealthy families and individuals on the Sunday Times Rich List among its clients, you can be pretty sure that it is meeting - and exceeding - the gold standard. One of the world's leading law firms for private wealth, Withers has earned its position among the legal elite with an offering that can satisfy the demands of even the most discerning customers. "Withers' global strategy is to be wherever wealthy individuals want us to be," the firm told Chambers Student last year. This approach has inspired a period of successful global expansion which began in 2002, when the firm entered the US market by merging with Connecticut-based Bergman, Horowitz & Reynolds. Since then, its London headquarters established over a century ago has been bolstered by outposts in Geneva, Milan, Padua, Zürich, New York, Greenwich (Connecticut), San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Rancho Santa Fe, Hong Kong, Sydney, the British Virgin Islands, Tokyo and Singapore. Wherever there is wealth, the firm is on hand to ensure that it does not wither.
However, there is a lot more to Withers than its (admittedly stellar) tax and wealth planning practice. The firm also has strong family, litigation, property and commercial departments; and the breadth of this expertise has informed its status as a leading developer of legal talent. "The difference with Withers, in comparison to other private client firms, is the diverse training that we offer," explains training principal Suzanne Todd, who scooped this year's LC.N award for being best in class in the role for the second year in a row. "We have so many different practices, as well as niche areas within our wider departments, which range from immigration to reputation management. This means that we can provide hands-on training with lots of client contact in a range of different fields, as well as the opportunity to run files if you can demonstrate your skills."
"We only take on 10 trainees a year - this means that we can offer hands-on responsibility and the highest quality support from an early stage," adds Nicola Stafford, who plays a key HR role for applicants and trainees. "We also have a really diverse bunch of trainees in terms of background and age, and this creates a great environment for people to learn from each other, and form good relationships and long-term careers."
Of course, great training starts with great recruitment and the selection process at Withers is rigorous, with a well-thought-out vacation scheme and two-stage interview process giving both candidates and the firm the chance to learn as much about each other as possible. Victoria Harrison, a second-seat trainee in the commercial property department, was immediately impressed: "I did a number of placements and I can honestly say that Withers was streets ahead compared to other firms. I now realise that what I experienced on the vacation scheme closely reflected what life as a trainee would be like; I was given genuine responsibility and interesting work to do. At some other firms, I wasn't even given an email address to use during the placement - vac schemers were just handed fictional problems to solve."
The interview process which follows is conducted with the same care. Forms are initially reviewed by the HR team, as Nicola explains: "I am candidates' first point of contact for submitting applications and organising interviews, but the interview process itself is managed by partners. Our trainee interview comprises 15 partners and special counsel from across the firm's practice groups; the panel conducts both the first and second-stage interviews, and of course makes decisions on offers, with Suzanne having the final say."
When she was my supervisor, it was a genuine privilege to share a room with her for six months.
The first stage of the training contract interview process is also the assessment for vacation scheme applicants. Online verbal reasoning and commercial awareness tests, as well as a written test, precede a one-to-one conversation with a partner; after a second and final interview - involving a 10-minute presentation to two partners and a Q&A session - the decision is made on who will receive offers. Current trainee James Hockin confirms that the process was nowhere near as daunting as he expected: "A few days before the interview, you're given a choice of topics on which to prepare a 10-minute presentation. The subjects were diverse and topical - I remember WikiLeaks and the budget deficit being two examples when I applied. The interview itself was actually quite informal; you can stand up and address the room or sit down to talk to the partners face to face, as you would in a client meeting. I opted for the latter and just talked the partners through it - there was no need to prepare a slideshow or anything like that. Afterwards the partners just asked some questions designed to get to know me - it was all pretty relaxed."
Catching people out is definitely not the aim of the game. "What we're trying to do with the second interview is to get a debate going and see how people engage with the different sides to a topic," says Suzanne. "We have had presentations on everything from Twitter and privacy to whether it's right that a footballer is paid in a week what a brain surgeon earns in a year. There are no wrong answers - it's all about giving an engaging presentation."
Successful candidates begin their training contract with a two-week induction, during which they meet their partner mentor, supervisor and trainee buddy and get to know the firm better through fun (and occasionally delicious) exercises such as chocolate-making classes. "The induction also includes part of the Professional Skills Course, with the firm overseeing the rest of the electives over the course of the training contract," explains Suzanne. "Combined with departmental training during the induction and beyond, we provide the full training experience, in terms of both soft skills and black -letter law."
Seat changes are handled democratically, with the vast majority of trainees ending up in one of their preferred departments. However, as Suzanne explains, keeping an open mind is often just as important as landing one of your choices: "Each trainee puts down three seat options for each seat rotation and we try to ensure that everyone gets at least one of their picks. This isn't always possible, as some seats can be very popular; but we also encourage trainees to be open to new possibilities because law in the textbooks is very different from law in practice. People can be so surprised at what they actually end up enjoying during their training contracts."
James goes on to explain how all of this theory has played out in practice over the course of his training contract: "I've had a lot of partner contact and exposure to clients, building up gently from my first seat onwards. From talking to friends at other firms, I get the sense that my experience has been more similar to that of someone at a smaller boutique firm than a trainee at a typical big firm where the partners and associates tend to handle all the front-line client contact. All the departments here vary but employment - the department which I'll be joining on qualification - is one of the less hierarchical teams; during that seat I was attending client meetings and the employment tribunal with partners, and speaking directly with clients over the phone."
Meanwhile, the trainees are quick to hail Suzanne for her stewardship of the programme. "She is a great fusion of approachability and efficiency," enthuses Nicola. "She is brilliant at getting the job done, but also always makes time to support the trainees. It's rare for trainees to go directly to the training principal with their queries and issues, but here Suzanne and our trainees are very comfortable talking to each other."
Victoria agrees: "I sat with Suzanne during my vacation scheme and then two years later, when I began my training contract in the family department. It's almost like there are two Suzannes doing two full-time jobs - family partner and training principal. When she was my supervisor, it was a genuine privilege to share a room with her for six months. She was extremely impressive - she glides from one meeting to the next and takes important calls on completely different matters in quick succession. At the same time, she was really chatty and inclusive; even though she was often pressed for time, she would debrief me after an important phone call, pointing out interesting things which were said or anything that was odd - I learned so much from my time with her."
Of course, as Suzanne explains, all of this effort is invested with a keen eye towards the future - both the firm's and that of its trainees: "One-third of our partners trained here, so if you're looking for long-term career prospects, you can see that this firm values having trainees who progress all the way to partner level. We have put in place amazing training for junior, mid-level and senior associates to help facilitate that, and there is great internal training programme at all levels of the firm. As a firm, what we are great at now, compared to when I joined, is training people up in the commercial and business development skills they need to be the partners of the future."